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Sing! Idol

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“I just really love singing! Ballads, dance, electronica, rock… they’re all great in their own way. You’ll think I’m crazy or at least very confused, if you look at my playlists.”

-- Amber LIU (27), travel host.


“Singing has been a form of de-stressing and enjoyment all my life. I even took classes for it, but I never even thought about pursuing it as a career. It’s not like I don’t enjoy law. But singing is a part of me.” 

-- CHO Kyuhyun (31), lawyer, corporate law.


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

DUET Challenge winner: CHANGMIN&KYUHYUN

 

Irene and Zhou Mi end up as the pair with the lowest combined score as voted by the audience, although there are no surprises on that -well- score. They come backstage to prepare for their solo pieces, looking impossibly awkward and avoiding each other's eyes.

"How do you even…" Henry starts, but Zhou Mi cuts him off with a blank "I don't want to talk about it." 

Irene’s got her head ducked low, walking to the dressing room with hers stylist trotting to keep up with her, Irene’s second outfit clutched in both hands. Henry looks at her, then at Zhou Mi trudging off in the opposite direction, and asks the room in general, “but how do you even…”

“Shut up, Henry,” Kyuhyun advises, and for once Henry follows instructions without spouting ten other questions, as is his wont. Everyone looks for corners to avert their eyes to. Changmin aims for one and accidentally meets Yunho’s gaze instead.

Yunho tilts his head slightly. What do you think happened to them.

Changmin raises the edge of his right shoulder. Maybe they fought? 

Yunho scratches his ear. But it’s Irene and Zhou Mi. They don’t fight. 

Offended, Changmin rubs a knuckle across his nose. But… Irene hits me.

Yunho raises both eyebrows. Yeah, but it’s you. 

Changmin blinks and take a half step back. What do you mean?!

Yunho rubs a hand at the back of his nape. No nothing bad don’t be offended sorry it’s just you are a softie for the girls and they absolutely know it. 

“Not that it isn’t entertaining watching the two of you do interpretive dance at each other,” Kyuhyun interrupts, and both of them look up to find six pairs of eyes focused on them in fixed concentration.

Well, five. Taeyeon’s rolling hers and directing them back to her fingernails. 

Yunho coughs. Changmin flushes a brilliant red. 

“But,” Kyuhyun continues, dodging the vicious kick Changmin aims at his shin, “I think Youngjin is waving us in.”

They file back into the wings, everyone a little puzzled and a lot sombre. Zhou Mi and Irene take their turns, and it’s obvious that Irene’s lost her concentration. Her “Love Battery”, originally by Hong Jin Young, is listless and lackluster. Jaewon puts it well, when he raises his mic to give a gentle but blunt, “your battery sounds like it just ran out of juice, Irene.” 

Zhou Mi sings a ballad in his native Mandarin. Changmin doesn’t understand the words, but the thread of very real desperation in his voice throughout the entire song - that he understands. This is watershed for Zhou Mi, just as Judges’ Choice was for Changmin. 

In the end, desperation and desire wins out. Zhou Mi gets to stay.

 

--

 

They’re still talking about it, a couple of days later. Ostensibly, everyone is hard at work preparing for the next challenge, its theme turning out to be Medleys.

Although calling it Mad-ley would be more appropriate, given how the nine of them take turns feverishly throwing combinations of two or more songs together, and at each other, only to rescind the song choices for other pieces over and over.

Everyone’s still rattled by the elimination last week. 

Changmin’s hunched over his guitar, visibly diligent with his practice, because he discovers that if he practices his scales in the privacy of his room, Taeyeon has a tendency to narrow her eyes at him and go, “did you spend all that money just for that poor instrument to languish in a dark corner?”

The first and second time she does it, it invites a cacophony of inquisitive questioning. The inevitable teasing and catcalls of “your restaurant” that follows makes Changmin clap his hands over his ears in defeat, and decide it is better to err on the side of caution. 

He still practices in his room, often in the evening after dinner, when Kyuhyun pours them chilled white to savour. But now he does it visibly in the mornings too. Either in one of the practice rooms, or more often than not the kitchen, because there’s natural light, and it’s the kitchen.

Changmin does it so much that Jihwan moans over just how much similar footage he has, of Changmin playing scales on the guitar, and how boring the viewers will find him. There's no surprises on that count, so Changmin just ignores him. 

He’s in the kitchen now, with his Taylor, and trying to figure and finger his way through F sharp minor.

Unfortunately (for him), he’s also seated at the side table. Chanyeol and Zhou Mi have decided it would be a good idea to bookend him whilst they carry an ongoing conversation over his bent head.

“-really don’t know,” Zhou Mi is saying, when Changmin finally pulls off a successful combination with minimal fumble as he segues between F sharp and G sharp. He tunes back in absentmindedly into the conversation, only to hear Zhou Mi utter, “she came to beg me to make sure she loses, before we started recording.”

Chanyeol’s face is a rictus of shock. “But- that’s against the rules? Have you told the producers? You’re jeopardising your own run, Mi!”

Zhou Mi waves him off. “Both of us spoke to the producers together and separately, after the recording. I think she explained some things to them in private, because they didn’t question me much.”

He sighs, and picks at an immaculately maintained fingernail. “Soyoung told me I am being a good friend. Well… I don’t know what that means.” 

Chanyeol still looks shell-shocked at the thought of deliberately engineering a loss. “Did she contact any one of you after?” He looks at Changmin to include him in the question as well. 

Changmin blinks. B, C sharp, D, E.

His fingers pause. “No,” he says honestly. 

They ignore him them, and Zhou Mi visibly gathers himself to ask them both what songs they are considering for their Medley piece. Changmin’s still ruminating, and tells them as such. 

Chanyeol turns even more animated, however, and offers to show Zhou Mi, but they will need to head to a practice room, because he “needs a damned lot of space, bro, you’re not gonna believe what I have in store.” 

Changmin’s left to his own devices again, something that actually pleases him. He bends over his Taylor once more, adjusting it so it sits better in the vee of his crossed legs. He goes through the entire F sharp minor scale again, and then pauses, taps his fingers. Maybe he can practice the Imagine score he played a month back, just so that he keeps it fresh. It is the first proper accompaniment he learned after all-

“Starving, starving, starv- oh, Changmin!” the startled exclamation, together with the simultaneous clatter of a saucepan, makes Changmin look up. Saucepans clatters differently from frying pans from pots- oh. 

“Yunho,” he says in response and in greeting, an involuntary smile tugging the edge of his lips.

Then they both look at the fallen saucepan, and Changmin knows his smile freezes, a little.

“Sorry!” Yunho bends to pick it up, an embarrassed laugh eking out from him. Changmin just offers him a small shrug but says warningly, “that one is a cheap knock-off that the production team found in one of the Mokdong hypermarts. But if that happened in my part of the kitchen…. Let’s just say that clumsy stages assigned to my part usually run away in three days or less.” 

That makes Yunho laugh again. “Yes, you’re extremely terrifying, Changminnie.” 

Changmin blinks, and opens his mouth. Closes it again. Yunho takes visible pity on him, and ventures, “that was meant as a compliment.”

“Oh,” Changmin relaxes. 

Yunho lifts the edge of his t-shirt to rub at the sides of the saucepan. Changmin bites back the inclination to tell him that that doesn’t help a wit if the pan has been dented by the fall, and busies himself looking around the corners of the kitchen instead. Anything to avoid the sight of smooth lithe curves that’s being afforded by the raised tee right now. 

“Myunghwan?” He asks. All six fixed cameras in the kitchen are recording. 

“I think it’s too early… He usually likes to eat his egg sandwich and have an Americano before he starts his shift with me.” Is Yunho’s response, hands and eyes still busy on the saucepan. “Jihwan?”

“Lazy. He always complains he has too much footage of me on the guitar now and I never play anything exciting anyway. Just scales. So….” Changmin drums his fingers in the guitar’s body, and smooths a hand over its edge. “He usually shows up closer to lunch. That’s when he tries to goad me into cooking again.”

“Ah,” Yunho’s voice is muffled, because he’s ducked into one of the cupboards built into the counter. “Go on! I’m listening to you! I’m just-”

He emerges with a small soup pot. Changmin gazes at him with increasing fascination. “What are you doing?” 

“The crew’s egg sandwiches smell really, really good today,” Yunho says, jerking the pot under the tap at the sink and turns the lever for a quick gush of water, then turns it off again. He shakes the pot hard, and dumps the water. It seems to be his version of rinsing the pot. 

Changmin can’t look away. It’s starting to feel a little like a train wreck. “So you’re…. Boiling eggs?”

“Boiling?” Yunho’s meandering towards the fridge, and he pulls it open to take one, two, three eggs. “Oh! No! I feel like an omelette. They are feeding us Korean breakfast today, did you see the spread? But I feel like eggs and ham. Although not green eggs and ham. Do you know Dr Seuss? Some of the kids in my junior ballet class like to chant that at me.”

“You feel like a-” Changmin looks at the soup pot. Looks at Yunho. Looks at the soup pot again. “That’s a soup pot.”

“Is it?” Yunho brings it up close to his face and frowns at it, as though the words “soup pot” would be written in fine print on the sides of the pot in question. “I like the curved sides. Wouldn’t it easier to shape an omelette with them?”

Whoa. 

This is like… Watching a newborn infant try to walk. And then hoping it won’t fall face-first.

Changmin stands, picking up a soft rag for a quick wipe down of his Taylor, to remove his prints and dirt. Slipping it back into its case, he leans it against a far wall and hurries back to the counters, which are already starting to look like a war zone. 

Yunho’s beating the eggs with a spoon (?), and he’s got half-diced ham sitting on a chopping board next to him. The knife lies on the board in mute greasy accusation. He’s used the bread knife to attempt the dicing, and of course it’s resulted in mangled-looking hammy bits. 

Changmin doesn’t know what to help with first. He looks at the chopping board, then the pot, and then over to Yunho, who’s using enough forearm strength to churn up a mini-tornado in the mixing bowl. 

He winces reflexively, when Yunho gets a little bit too enthusiastic in beating the eggs. A splash of yellow slops over the side of the bowl. At least he’s repurposed a large enough soup bowl for the mixing. 

Another slop of yellow, another wince. Changmin inhales, and opens his mouth. “You feel like having omelettes for breakfast? Why don’t I-”

“No.” Yunho points the spoon at him, undeterred by how a drip of yellow does an about-face boomerang and ends up decorating his own nose. “You’re not our live-in chef! This is not the Playboy mansion. You’re too nice, Changminnie. We should be able to feed ourselves, instead of you running after us all the time. We take advantage of you.” 

Him, nice? Changmin shakes his head. This isn’t a train wreck. It’s an airplane crash. He tries again. “It’s no trouble.” 

“No. You do too much for us. We can feed ourselves, sometimes. I can feed myself! It’s just an omelette.” Yunho swipes at the yolk on his nose, and only succeeds it smearing it across his cheek. 

Sunshine spills in from the window over the sink, wintry bright, and gilds his profile with glittering edges. His hair, normally black and still severely buzzed at the back, mussed from sleep, drapes down across his eyes in a warm spill of dark brown under the filtered rays. 

Changmin takes another breath, but Yunho raises a hand and goes, “no! It’s okay. It’ll be fine. I’ll make enough for us to share. I can feed you too.”

I can feed you too. 

Changmin falls in love.

It’s this precise moment he remembers, clear as day, even years later.

How Yunho looks, his face still sleep-creased, and hair an unstyled mess. His tee is overly big on his frame and says “Myongji Dance”. There’s a faint scar on his cheek that Changmin had never noticed before, but is visible thus in the light. How the flickers of yellow from the tortured egg mixture spin from the bowl, dancing through the rays. Yunho’s eyes, flinty sharp with concentration, not on dance, but on the other great love of Changmin’s life. 

There’s a bit of yellow on his eyelashes. How his eyebrows draw together and furrow, bold slashes even without the aid of eyebrow pencils.

Changmin falls in love. Just like that. The final nail in the coffin. 

There’s a split second of pure happiness arcing through him, golden like the December sunshine. 

Then it fades into grey despair, and resignation.

He has a bad habit of falling for unattainable people. His middle school classmate, who already had a boyfriend. A brilliant sous chef the year after military, in France, already married to a most beautiful wife. 

Now Yunho. 

Changmin grapples with it, chokes it back. 

At least he and Yunho are friends. He thinks he can claim that, at least, and Yunho seems to see him as more than tolerable, given how he does come of his own volition to have conversations with Changmin. They aren’t short conversations, either. No one would subject themselves to such torture, if they can’t stand the person. 

At least they are friends.

There’s an ache in Changmin’s chest, when he thinks about how they are at most three months from the end of this competition. He’s a little more confident about his chances here, and actively fighting to stay. 

But even then, Changmin doesn’t think he’ll reach the semi-finals. There’s Yunho himself, and Kyuhyun, and Taeyeon. The Big Three with the most consistently high set of scores. 

He hopes Yunho likes him enough as a friend that they will still keep in touch after Sing! Idol ends. 

Changmin doesn’t need much. Maybe a few KaTalks once a fortnight? Greeting exchanges during the big festive dates, like Chuseok and the New Year. Meet ups, with the bigger gang and what is that horrible smell what has Yunho done now did Yunho fling a pat of butter into the soup pot and just let it keep at high heat the pot is cast iron is the butter burning yes the butter is burning-

Changmin squawks, and barely has the presence of mind to grab the dishcloth and then grab the smoking pot by its ears.

He flings it into the sink and turns the tap on. 

There’s another impressive belch of brown smoke, cast iron cooling under running water with a sizzle. 

Yunho blinks at him. “But… what did I do wrong? Omelettes are fried in butter, right? Don’t you need to add butter before the egg goes in?”

Changmin feels his mouth flatten into a thin line despite himself.

He looks at the chopping board, where Yunho has abandoned the egg mixture after flinging in the butter, to mince determinedly at the ham again. He’s going too slow, and the bread knife is dragging through the cured meat to give a mashed mess. It’s less ham and more pâté.

He looks at the egg mixture, where splatters decorate both the interior and exterior of the bowl. 

Then he looks at the abused pot sitting forlornly in the sink, and pokes at his own feelings.

Fuck. Yes, he’s in love.

“Changmin?” The determination has fled Yunho’s face. Now there’s something fragile, almost uncertain about him. “Sorry. So sorry. Did I ruin the pot? Maybe I can just…”

Changmin bends, and rummages. He comes back up with the rectangular frying pan, and brandishes it at Yunho. “Does it count towards ‘not letting you feed yourself’ if I just shout instructions at you?”

There’s confusion written all over his face, but Yunho takes the frying pan, nonetheless. “Beg pardon?”

“You called me terrifying and said it’s a compliment,” Changmin elaborates, nudging him out of the way with a gentle hip check, just so he can get at the knife drawer. 

He pulls a chef’s knife out, and gives it a quick wash. “Then you called me too nice. Let me teach you how to make an omelette and you can decide which one I am.” 

 

--

 

They’re sitting next to each other at the island counter, chairs close together to each other, and wolfing down the giant omelette in ravenous silence. Since there’s two of them, and they’re both hungry, Changmin made Yunho crack six eggs earlier, and taught him how to whisk gently.

Yunho must be halfway-full now. He’s pausing from wolfing the eggs down so quickly that it’s a wonder his mouth can fit everything. Now he’s admiring a scrap of egg-and-ham-and-mushroom dripping off of his fork. 

“I’ve never had an omelette like this before,” he says, wondering. 

Before he can stop himself, Changmin darts a look at Yunho from the side, silent judgement through his eyelashes. Yunho catches his disbelief and lets loose a peal of laughter. The omelette nearly falls out from his mouth, and Changmin puts a hovering hand beneath that laughing mouth, before he even thinks about it. 

Yunho bats Changmin’s hand away, laughing harder. “Changminnie, really! I know you think I’m useless in the kitchen, but I know enough to keep food in my mouth!” 

Changmin grumbles, and turns back to his share of the omelette. There’s a creeping warmth in his ears. 

Yunho hums, and says out of the blue, “you’re still too nice.”

“Wuh?” Now Changmin’s the one with his mouth full, and can only make a vaguely inquisitive noise and hope Yunho understands. 

Somehow he does. Twirling his fork, Yunho continues. “You’re still too nice. You didn’t scold me at all, even though your face kind of look like I was hurting you with what I did to the ham.”

Changmin closes his eyes in reflexive regret for that portion of ham, too mutilated to be of any use. “I raised my voice at you.”

“To give firm instructions!” Yunho tosses another bit of omelette into his mouth. “Which I appreciate. You were very clear, even down to the timings of what should go where. Mmm, I never knew that omelette with ham and mushroom filling would have onions, too.”

“You need to sauté the mushrooms with onions first. It brings out the full flavour,” Changmin says, and he’s horrified to hear the lecturing tone creeping back into his voice.

Yunho doesn’t seem to mind. If anything, he smiles bigger at Changmin. The full force of that dazzling grin aimed just at him is enough to make Changmin faintly queasy, especially in light of his own internal epiphany. 

 

--

 

Jihwan nags him about it, after. 

Changmin’s decided on the three songs he’ll tweak into a medley. The production team has been notified, and he’s seated with Eun-ah to plan his stage outfit for the week. Jihwan’s supposed to fade into the wallpaper as usual, and capture the high points of Changmin trying to convince Eun-ah to go minimalist again, but instead his cameraman is blathering on.

“You really should have texted me,” Jihwan bitches, camera off. They’re huddled in one of the many rooms in the backstage warrens of the broadcast station. There are no fixed cameras. Eun-ah’s gaze is darting between the two of them, amused. 

“I didn’t think it important,” Changmin shrugs. He tries a look on Eun-ah, a limpid stare that Wendy’s taught him recently. On her, it’s capable of making him agree to reheat instant tteok-bokki for her. 

Eun-ah just looks unfazed. 

Jihwan makes a noise of pure exasperation. “Not important? The dark horse is teaching the hot favourite how to cook! Do you know how much both your sets of fans will cry over that? Do you know how much grandmothers all over the nation will coo over that? The many ways we could have played with that footage! We could have snipped different versions for free-to-air and digital and SNS! Instead now the editors only have footage from the fixed cameras in the corners! We can’t zoom in on those! Those are meant for wide environment set-up shots!”

Eun-ah props her chin up with a hand. “Should a dark horse still go for a minimalist concept?”

Jihwan is behaving so unlike his usual mild-mannered self that Changmin’s slightly taken aback, although he still doesn’t quite understand how it’s a big deal. “Oh, but… the editors have footage of the entire conversation between Yunho and I in the kitchen, right? Since our editors are so good, maybe they can just summarise? It’s better to not show Yunho cooking. Those grandmothers might cry.”

Jihwan looks at him like he’s got three heads. “Summarise? Summarise? Summarise!”

He wanders off, clutching his camera and muttering to himself. Changmin hears snatches of his name mentioned, and Soyoung’s, and Hyejin’s. 

They’ve kind of hammered into him that he needs to stick together with his cameraman as much as possible, so Changmin actually half-rises to get up to go with him. 

Then he remembers Eun-ah. Who’s patiently waiting for him, her smile managing to be both placid and amused. 

“Right, right, outfits.” Changmin sits down again. “So…”

 

--

 

There’s another explosion of netizen commentary and fandom(s) warring over the Duet episode, which airs the night before the Medley recording session. There’s so few of them now, so naturally they gather in the living room to watch it together. 

It’s also Christmas, and the mansion rings with them shouting their well-wishes at each other in the hallways and down across the stairs.

The production team has hung up sprigs of mistletoe as a joke, but Taeyeon takes one look at the little hints of greenery decorating almost every corner and doorway, and stomps to an unlucky assistant producer, snarling, “I signed up for a vocal talent fight to the death, not a dating show.” 

The mistletoe vanish shortly after that. 

Changmin’s got his guitar practically glued to his thighs, and Taeyeon hers. They’re both bent over, feverishly practicing, until Henry smacks both of them hard enough that they look up.

Taeyeon’s scowling. Her fingers haven’t stopped plucking out a melody. Changmin just needs to practice those particular eight bars again, it’s towards the end and he keeps mixing the fingering up for what goes in front-

“Can you two stop? Guys! The episode is starting!” Henry hisses. He stretches out a hand to cover the strings on Changmin's guitar, then Taeyeon's, but Taeyeon just snarls at him and then hefts her guitar to walk out on them instead.

“Happy Christmas, Taeyeon,” Yunho calls after her, sunny smile tempered by a slight frown of concern. 

Changmin too, escapes to practice for half an hour more, before he wanders back into the living room. There’s only eight of them. He’s knocked on Taeyeon’s door and got a loud growl in return, audible even through the wood, so Changmin leaves her alone.

 

--

 

Even as the day spills over to recording day, and they make their way to the broadcast station in the large minivans, Changmin’s still practising. 

He’s second and third guessing himself, because the three songs he’s chosen belong to the same singer. He’d thought that would mean it would be easier to rearrange them, given how they’re all written for the same man. But somehow his arrangement still sounds odd to him.

Everyone’s reassured him that it’s just him being an idiot. “You do have a tendency to obsess,” Wendy offers. “It really sounds good, Changmin. I’m not kidding. Just leave it alone!” 

So they’re on the way, and he’s trying to quieten the doubts in his head by practicing, and practicing more. There’s no Kyuhyun this time round, both for the challenge and for the ride, because Kyuhyun’s in the other van with his team mates. So Changmin practices. And practices.

He keeps at it until Henry lets out a howl and physically pulls his hands away. “Enough! Your accompaniment is going to ring in my head for weeks!”

They’re near the broadcast station anyway, so Changmin sighs and sits on his hands. 

Unexpectedly, Taeyeon speaks up for him. Unlike him, her feverish practicing ended last night. She’s the epitome of unruffled calm now. “Shut up, Henry. You’re just jealous because you can’t pull your synthesiser out and go at it like us.” 

“Maybe I just have faith in myself, for coming so far,” Henry snipes back, snootily. 

Taeyeon’s got both eyebrows raised, but thank fuck they’re turning into the station’s carpark. Changmin hops off before he can get caught in the ensuing crossfire. 

 

--

 

This time round he’s dressed in another pair of blue jeans, but these don’t actually belong to him. Eun-ah has also sourced for him a denim shirt, faded and artfully distressed and worn loose and unbuttoned over a white tee beneath.

Amber whistles, when he walks past her with the jeans and tee on, carrying his guitar in its case. “Hate to see you go, but…”

Changmin rolls his eyes at her, and she cackles. 

He fights the urge to tug at the jeans. He thinks- he knows that the stylist has put him in at least two sizes too small. Changmin’s extremely clear on what’s what with regard to his own physical flaws, and part of that includes skinny legs that don’t quite seem to fill out, no matter how many hours he spends at the treadmill. 

That means when he wears jeans, properly fitting jeans, they tend to be comfortable around his waist, but a looser fit around the parts that Yoonju and now Eun-ah have been strangely and embarrassingly fixated on for months. 

Right now the pair he’s wearing feels like it’s been painted onto his bum. 

Changmin can’t even bend over properly. He’s tried. The denim pulls too tightly over the tops of his thighs and his entire hip region for him to even sit down fast. He was worried about pulling stitches, and tells Eun-ah as much. 

She doesn’t lose her temper at him like Yoonju would have done. But it’s a near thing. Her eyes go squinty, then her mild smile is back, albeit strained at the corners. “Of course I reinforced it for you, when I took out the waist. And it’s denim, silly boy. It doesn’t rip that easily. Not true denim. I won’t put you into one of those cheap thin denim lookalike fabrics!”

“Ah! So you did get a smaller size,” he says, triumphant, but she just stares at him in confusion. “Of course I have to make sure it’s fitted for you. We don’t want any saggy bottoms on national TV!” 

Changmin just sighs and gestures for the hovering Jooyoung to herd him away to wherever. 

Jihwan chuckles, holding his camera steady at Changmin’s retreating back and zooming slightly downwards, for the television viewers’ pleasure. 

Then he pans towards Eun-ah’s mild expression, which stays in place for two seconds before she shows two fingers in a victory sign, and gives the lens a sly grin.

 

— 

 

He’s at stage right, wiping down his Taylor one last time, anxious about prints showing up on the glossy finish under the harsh lights. 

There’s a snort at his side, then Taeyeon comes and takes the polishing rag away from him.

She folds it and puts it back in his case, then clicks that shut. 

Changmin stares at her helplessly. 

Logically, he knows he shouldn’t have an attack of nerves. He’s gotten through challenges where he knows he’s given lousier performances, especially in the beginning. He’s practiced almost every waking hour, or unless his Taylor is taken away from him by Kyuhyun. He got through Unplugged week with what was, in hindsight, blind determination and focus and also Taeyeon’s help. He shouldn’t be nervous. He’s practiced.

He’s nervous. 

Everything just feels a little off all week, especially after that morning in the kitchen, with Yunho. He wants to stay as long as possible. He wants a little more time. He wants, he wants.

Oh, how he wants.

“Don’t,” Taeyeon says. She’s staring at him, expression steely. “If anyone’s got a right to perform well, it’s us. We’ve worked hard and it’ll show.”

It’s so self-assured, so arrogant and so her that Changmin laughs, startled and one hand coming up to run through his hair out of habit. 

He goes halfway and lowers it again. He’s got mousse and spray and whatnot that the stylists have unloaded in his hair, and it’s once again shorter because they trimmed the bits around his ears and even gave a sneaky buzz at his nape. “You’ve played the guitar for years, Taeyeon.”

“Don’t make me give you compliments. I’m allergic,” she informs him.

He laughs properly this time, hilarity breaking the tension. She blinks slowly, but at least she’s not frowning at him anymore. He’ll take that. “Hold your guitar properly before you break it.”

He does, adjusting the stranglehold he’s got around his Taylor. 

On stage, Chanyeol is rapping again, to the cheers of schoolgirls. He’s wrapping up. Changmin’s up next.

Taeyeon lifts an eyebrow at him. “I won’t wish you luck. You won’t need it.” 

Changmin tries to smile at her. It comes out crumpled at the corners, and steadies. “Yes ma’am.”

 

 

He goes onstage, guitar clutched in one hand. He’s the second contestant. Yunho’s after him. 

They’ve already set up for him. It’s similar to what he had for Unplugged week, two tilting stands with mics already slotted into them. One for him and one for his Taylor. A backless bar stool sits in between them. The only difference is that some distance away, they’ve placed another mic stand at his request. This would be for the second and third portions of his medley.

He sits, slow. The denim stretches over his thighs, and the slight discomfort forces him to stay grounded in the moment. 

Hyunmoo is announcing him. The stage lights dim for the spotlights to come on. There’s a strong cheer, and applause coupled with catcalls. 

Seated, he bows as much as he can, his Taylor cradled to his chest. 

They hush, and it’s quiet. He takes a deep breath, and another. Checks the tuning pegs, gives a strum of middle C. She sounds bright. He’s ready.

He inhales, and bends his head to start.

 

 

His score is astoundingly high. 

After, Changmin stays in stage left, because he wants to watch Yunho’s performance, which is conceptually as far from his piece as much as possible. 

Changmin did acoustic the first part and power ballads for the second and third arc. They are all three songs sung by the same one original singer, to stitch together a story of a bittersweet love that was beautiful in its simplicity but ended in tears. 

Yunho, however went in the other direction for in-your-face glitz and glam. He opens with Dang Diggity Bang, originally by Jongkook’s close friend and colleague Haha. Standing at the edge of the wings, Changmin can see the pleased grin on both Jongkook and Jaewon’s face as Yunho raps and sings slickly, hyping the audience into doing a Mexican wave with him. 

They oblige, with much enthusiastic hollering.

It’s December, but right now on set it feels like a vibrant summer festival instead. BoA has an ear cup of her headphones held up to one ear, and Jongkook is talking into the other. 

Then there’s a dazzling display of lights, and Yunho strips off his colourful reggae jacket to show a sharp black pinstripe blazer beneath. The music segues into Psy’s Gentleman, and the crowd lets loose another encompassing cheer. 

Changmin stares, entranced. He’s not biased. Yunho pulls the song off better than Psy; young, handsomer, more vibrant, more energetic. He’s doing all of Psy’s original choreography and he’s incorporate his own moves as well, a mix of modern dance and the urban ballet he teaches. 

He does things that someone wearing a suit shouldn’t be able to do, and he does them well. 

After going “Mother father gentleman”, there’s a pop, and confetti showers the audience to their delight. 

Then Yunho does something, and the top he’s got wearing beneath the buttoned blazer rips, and then suddenly he’s not wearing anything under it at all. 

Only two buttons separate Yunho’s bare skin from the many eyes both human and camera in front of him. The iconic synthesiser beat that signals TVXQ!’s Mirotic sounds, and the crowd goes mad. 

The noise is deafening. 

Yunho’s amazing. 

He dances, and sings, and raps the bridge, and leaps around the stage. Somehow those two buttons don’t falter. Changmin’s got a very close eye on them, but they stay firm and Yunho doesn’t do anything too crazy, like Henry last week whipping his top off and flinging it into a cluster of bewildered but pleased schoolgirls.

(Taeyeon wasn’t pleased. They were singing an epic love ballad, which was no place for stripping.)

It’s enough. It’s a performance designed to make the audience fall for him, like the lyrics. 

The final stanza comes, and Yunho lets the backup singers do the main melody line, while he steps up his dancing and starts ad-libbing in accompaniment. He even does a lower baritone coloratura, a quick run of notes that starts at a respectably high range and goes down, that makes Jongkook beam.

Then one final “I got you under my skin”, and Yunho’s performance is done. 

The harsher performance lights dim, and the studio lights come on to paint him in a different gradient. He’s still holding his position, whilst the audience votes. Their blood is still up, from the endless catcalls and whistles. 

From the shadows, Changmin can see his chest heaving with every breath. He’s dripping with sweat, and radiant from the exertion. He’s got his eyes focused on the giant sponsored Samsung screens that show the ticking tally of the vote. 

Changmin follows his line of sight, and blinks at the numbers that have come to a stop. He stares at them, and rubs at his own eyes. Looks again. Shakes his head. Looks yet again. 

It can’t be. Yunho and him are tied for the same score!

 

--

 

Yunho comes offstage, fairly vibrating with joy and a post-performance adrenaline high. He sees Changmin and gives a jubilant shout. “Changminnie!”

Changmin’s hauled in for a tight hug and a hearty backslap. He’s vaguely aware that the cameramen have begun to circle, now that there are two of them. He hugs Yunho back, and despite himself, presses his nose into the curve of Yunho’s neck to inhale the scent of his sweat.

He smells like hair spray, the foundation powders and underneath it very faintly, strawberries. Most of all he smells like himself, a clean and sharp musky tang. 

It’s not the time nor definitely the place but. But. Changmin grows hard. 

He’s mortified and disgusted with himself, because what kind of crazy pervert sticks their face into their friend’s sweat and then get excited by it in a very public place? He makes to pull away, but Yunho’s still got a strong arm hooked around Changmin’s neck, and he’s not letting go.

Yunho beams at Changmin, white teeth out in full force in a dazzling display. Then he goes, effusive, “we’ve got the same score, Changmin!” 

Oh. Yunho was watching too.

Changmin’s blushing. It’s not from the close proximity of Yunho’s face to his. Absolutely not. “You should ask for a recount!”

Yunho’s eyes widen, and then narrow. “What?”

Changmin gestures to the set, which is receding in the distance, because Yunho’s steering him backstage. Myunghwan trails after them, camera aloft. “Ask them for a recount! Your score should. Be higher!”

Yunho’s laughing a full-blown belly laugh, head thrown back. 

Oh, oh, he’s magnificent like this. Changmin gazes helplessly at him, feeling somewhat like a doomed fly trapped in the glittering majesty of a (very friendly?) spider’s web. 

Then he yelps, because Yunho’s tightened his arm, still around Changmin’s neck, such that he’s got Changmin in a headlock and he’s rubbing his knuckles hard into Changmin’s hair. 

Changmin squawks, feeling his hair, already stiff from product and spray, get scrubbed backwards, and up. He probably looks like he’s just gotten electrocuted. That wouldn’t be too far from the truth. It’s just not electricity that does him in. “Augh, what, get off!” 

Yunho does, still chortling, and then he reels Changmin back in again, so they are plastered face-to-neck for a brief heart-stopping moment, then Yunho’s got his mouth at Changmin’s ear, “I’ll do that again if you try to put yourself down one more time in front of me!” 

Changmin tries to pull away. He’s ticklish, and having Yunho’s mouth at the helix of his ear isn’t doing anyone any favours. Least of all his dick. “All right, all right! It’s fine the scores are fine it’s all fine we’re fine!”

“That we are,” Yunho agrees, and gives him another tight squeeze about the shoulder. Then he has to let go, because Wendy and Henry fall on them, laughing. 

 

-- 

 

Amber wins the Medley challenge, whipping the crowd into an arguably more animated frenzy than Yunho, with her spirited covers of Shake That Brass and Uptown Funk. 

She’s got everyone all excited and jumping along, the various placards in support of different contestants bopping to the beat. Jaewon gets so hyped he actually gets up on the judges’ table to dance, Bruno Mars’ original choreography flowing slickly from his limbs. BoA falls to her side giggling, while Jongkook can’t stop shaking his head with a giant grin wreathing his face. 

Their tied score means Yunho and Changmin come in second this week, for this particular challenge. 

It’s clearly of no interest to anyone but Changmin himself, who finds his gaze returning again and again to the giant screens on screen, where a line says “YUNHO/CHANGMIN | 2nd | 94.0”. 

Chanyeol is the one who goes home this week, and it’s clear that he doesn’t quite believe the result. He doesn’t throw a fit. But it’s a close shave, especially when recording is done and the producers try to herd him off to one of the rooms backstage for his exit interview. 

Youngmin cocks his head at the remaining eight of them. 

“Conference room for next week’s briefing,” he says. Changmin mouths along, already used to hearing those words after so many months.

 

--

 

In a different life 

너와 나의 세상이 

In a different life 

만나는 그날 

In a different life

-- IN A DIFFERENT LIFE.

 

아스라이 핀 한번의 미소가 

이토록 아름다워 

Beautiful stranger 

Beautiful stranger

-- BEAUTIFUL STRANGER. 

 

그리운 사랑아 내 사랑아 날 돌아볼 수는 없니 

입술이 닳도록 널 불러 봐도 닿을 수 없나봐 

세상 어느 곳에 있어도 난 너를 찾아갈게 

숨이 멎는 그 날이 와도 난 너를 기다려 

다시 사랑하고 싶어 미치도록 그리운 사랑아

내 사랑아 

-- 눈물 같은 사람 (A PERSON LIKE TEARS).